Instru-metal: Baroness, Earthless, Iron Age @ Bottom of the Hill, 12/2/09

Let me begin with a quote from a recent thought/anger provoking article written by Stewart Voegtlin of the Village Voice:

“A bizarre triangulation of that divide—a shameless glitz-and-tits approach to faux-anthemic blockbuster melodrama masquerading as elite-approved Art for Art’s Sake—plagues “metal” these days, as decidedly “un-metal” folks play “headbanger” by night in a host of dunderheaded critical darlings with banal commercialist tastes: Baroness, Mastodon, Torche, and especially Pelican.”

First of all, I had to read the article three times to grasp at what he was trying to say, and even then I’m not sure I translated it correctly. I have a Master’s degree- I’m not dumb- but the words are very SAT prep and especially ironic considering the ‘art for art’s sake’ comments. Granted, someone recently told me they liked my writing because I use simple words…so what do I know.

Anyway, what I think Mr. Voegtlin is basically trying to say is that bands like the ones mentioned above are bastardizing the metal genre. That metal is one clearly defined thing, and that thing is heavy metal, where the songs are straightforward, and little is left for interpretation. Underlying all of this is a disdain for the audience that the bands mentioned above bring into the genre. Some might call them hipsters.

I’ve heard this many times: the Bay Area houses a lot of seasoned metalheads as well as some of the country’s most offensive hipsters. My point of view on all of this is: WHO THE FUCK CARES?! Metal has come a long way, and this is because new people are coming into the genre as it matures and proliferates, which means that we are getting genre hybrids. As I just wrote in my last review, it’s really hard to create something truly new now. It sucks, but last gen metalheads have to realize that they were the lucky ones that got to see things from the beginning; now, we forge new territory. I don’t agree with the genre rape that some acts do when they label their myspace (i.e. crunk / death metal / electronica), nor do I agree with hipsters who go to metal shows because they want to tell their friends about it and don’t know a thing about the music. But if someone wants to create instrumental metal that harnesses similar time signatures and tuning and song structures that make it fit into the periphery of the genre, so be it. Because honestly, when I hear genre purists talk, I think to myself, ‘who’s behaving like the too-cool-for-school hipster now, really?’. I’m not saying you have to like it; brussel sprouts are a vegetable that only foodies (and I) love, but they’re still a vegetable. Metal doesn’t need to be an exclusive club; just specify you like heavy metal and all these problems will melt away.

Which brings me to the show. It was sold out, and the expectation was that Baroness would attract the ‘hipster’ metal crowd- the ones with Urban Outfitters metal tees and clean hair. That was not the case. Instead, there was a nice cross section of people there…local Potrero Hillians, college kids, a father and son…but what really defined it was who wasn’t there: the Pantera shirt wearing drunken meathead. What a breath of fresh air.

I arrived just in time to see Iron Age, who had mysteriously not blipped across my radar even though they are from the place that I call home, Austin. I wish I had more time to seek out new bands instead of waiting for them to come to me. It was funny; the guys got on stage, and I looked at the singer and thought he looked really familiar….and when he said something about Texas, it all made sense. Perhaps I saw him play in another band or something. Iron Age have the foundation to see some success- they sound great, they have a stage presence, and they have heart. The singer, bandana around his head, leans into the crowd as he screams, extending ‘the claw’ often towards BOTH’s low ceiling. The bassist and two guitarists headbang Cousin It style, hair obscuring their faces for much of the set. Their shirts read Pentagram and Candlemass, wearing their influences like a badge of honor. The southern drawl to their metal is there but not especially pronounced….I bet these guys jam with The Sword. They made a fan out of HRC.

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Earthless are a three piece from San Diego. They played an entirely instrumental set where one song bled into another. The drummer played in line with the guitarist and bassist, making for a really loud set. I find this speed of instrumental metal hard to digest- it sounds like . I couldn’t shake the sensation of waiting for some vocals to kick in. Unlike Pelican, Isis, Mastodon, or even Explosions in the Sky; I couldn’t space out to the mellower tempo; the music was more of a jam session than a guided journey. So in between geeking out on the guitarist’s skills on occasion, and waiting for someone to sing, I got bored.

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I found the Baroness set to be extremely interesting. They began with ‘Bullhead’s Psalm’, which on its own, along with the number of band members and their Georgia birthplace, must be where the Mastodon comparisons come in (there are some similarities to the intro to ‘The Czar’). But that was the extent of it. Mastodon possesses a finesse and technical prowess that Baroness has yet to achieve. But Baroness have a fire that Mastodon has somewhat lost. As soon as they started, I could feel it. Sometimes BOTH has this affect on bands- it’s small and exciting. But these guys just played their hearts out. And they look like a total cast of characters: one vocalist/guitarist sings with his mouth open so wide it looks like it might come unhinged, his eyes redden with the force of his yells. Sometimes spit would collect onto his massive beard. The other guitarist/vocalist, wearing a sleeveless Dark Castle shirt and some impressive tattoos, shared a chemistry with the other vocalist that inspired confidence in their passion for music. The bassist wore pigtail braids and just rocked out with a satisfied half smile on his face. He also removed his shirt halfway through the set- no chest hair! HRC appreciates this. I couldn’t really see the drummer….sorry dude.

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I find their music to be an interesting combination of ballad-esque vocals, heavy screams, folky aspects, and guitarmonies. It often felt like a score to a film; one with unexpected twists and turns at that. I wouldn’t say I left the show with any particular song buzzing in my head, but their overall tone was intriguing.

The crowd ranged from mellow observers to excited fist pumpers who sang along to every word. While they did not much address the crowd with words, they did so with their eyes; scanning the crowd in the quieter moments. Speaking of quieter moments, there was one that was followed by a loud simultaneous note that jolted me off the ground. That hadn’t happened before.

There was no encore, only a statement by the lead vocalist thanking the fans and telling us to not be afraid to talk to them if we see them outside.

On my way out, I passed the bassist for High on Fire, which made me think of Mastodon again. I wish I had seen them during their small club days like this.

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